Hadestown - Anaïs Mitchell

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Just over a week ago, Steve Hodgson (@BestofTimes on Twitter) recommended Hadestown to me. I'd seen a good review of it in The Guardian and been intrigued, but a personal recommendation from someone that you know has overlapping musical tastes is worth ten good reviews, so I eventually took the plunge.

I was gripped from the first time I heard it, but I've enjoyed it even more with repeated listenings. It manages to pack in many different kinds of things that I love: roots/folk music, New Orleans jazz, a 1930s theme, great lyrics, Greek mythology, and a guy with the deepest voice I've ever heard — what more could I ask?

The album (a 'folk opera') was written by Anaïs Mitchell (who sings Eurydice), but also features many other talented musicians like Ani DiFranco (Persephone) and Justin Vernon (Orpheus). It retells the story of Eurydice lured down to the Underworld by Hades, and her lover Orpheus who follows her to try to bring her back, but sets it in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Orpheus and Eurydice are in love, but penniless, and Hades seduces Eurydice with a vision of prosperity and security in the Underworld. Once down there, though, she finds it a dark and joyless prison, and misses flowers and sunlight and — inevitably — Orpheus.

I don't think that there's a single dud track on the album, and they are all as catchy and singable as any good folk tune should be, but there are one or two tracks that I particularly like. 'Why We Build the Wall' is done in a country style with slide guitar, but has a call and response format that reminds me of a sea shanty or the kind of work song that slaves might have sung on a plantation. It is also somewhat timely. Do these lyrics remind you of anything?

Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Another great track is 'Hey, Little Songbird'. Steve mentioned in his tweet that the album featured a guy with a voice that originated "somewhere about his ankles". That man is Greg Brown and Anaïs describes his voice as "subterranean": that's highly appropriate for someone playing Hades, the King of the Underworld. It's a glorious voice — deepest, darkest, 85% cocoa solids bitter chocolate, dangerous and seductive. Despite the warning, I wasn't expecting his voice, and the first notes of 'Hey, Little Songbird' pinned me to my chair, his basso profundo giving my woofers a good workout1 and making the dust dance on the floor.

Then there's the great New Orleans jazz blast of 'Way Down Hadestown', and the slinky, prohibition number 'Our Lady of the Underground' featuring Persephone as the owner of a speakeasy. I could go on, but you should just go and listen to it yourself. I also found myself thinking again about one of my favourite Jeff Noon books, Pollen. Though it is set in a weird, psychedelic future Manchester, it also features Persephone and Hades (disguised as John Barleycorn) in a skewed and mixed up version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and it somehow fits well with the feel of the album.

1 Not a euphemism.

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